The 4 Rules of Managing a Crisis on Social Media

Communicating during a crisis can be daunting for even the most seasoned professionals and companies—from knowing when and how to respond to anticipating unintended twists and turns in the conversation. Original events and facts are often exaggerated, misinterpreted and even distorted. Then, throw social media in the mix, and it adds another challenging variable to crisis communications.

With the critical role social media plays in our world today, it can either support, or greatly hinder, your communications efforts. Here are the 4 rules we go by at Pierpont in supporting clients' social media efforts during crisis communications management.

STOP: Pause Unrelated Social Activity

When a crisis hits, halt all scheduled social media activity and planned posts. Allowing previous marketing messages to run that are unrelated to the situation at hand could give the impression your organization is inconsiderate and disjointed. Once you enter into an acute crisis communications period, all outgoing messages should be reflective of the crisis until the situation has been resolved.

The same goes for crisis situations that are not directly related to your organization, but impact your industry or the broader public. In the event that something negative occurs that's widely covered by media, pause all social media posts, aside from necessary one-on-one replies to customers. This shows consideration for those involved in the present situation and does not distract from those sharing important news.

An example of a swift social media response by a company during a crisis was the Lufthansa and Germanwings response to a plane crash last year. Once reports of the plane crash were confirmed, both airlines updated their social media profiles to “go dark,” making their logos and banner images gray and black. This response demonstrated consideration for the seriousness of the situation and condolences for those affected by the crash. So it's advised to explore ahead of an incident what actions and steps you would need to take to ensure your social media channels reflect sensitivities to what's happening—while communicating proactively, as necessary.

WATCH: Listen to the Conversation

Although you may pause your social activity, it’s critical to continue monitoring where conversations are taking place and what's being shared. By using social monitoring tools, like NUVI or Radian6 through Salesforce Marketing Cloud, you can keep track of this activity. The most critical elements to monitor include the following:

  • Social posts that mention your company.
  • Keywords that could be related to or triggered from the crisis.
  • Sentiment of the conversation.

Knowing what others are saying about the situation will help you formulate your response. Interpret the conversation and strategize on your response. By setting these monitors up prior to any crisis situation, you will be prepared to capture these conversations immediately. For example, our social media monitoring for Wood Group allows us to keep track of the ongoing conversations and identify potential issues as early as possible.

It’s also critical to identify upfront who will be responsible for monitoring, responding and reporting back to the larger crisis management team—as well as how often the team should be alerted. The broader crisis team should consider the reach and tone of social media conversations surrounding the crisis, while drafting the overall response to customers, media and the general public.

ENGAGE: Take Part in the Conversation

It’s important to wait until you have gathered the necessary facts to respond. But the caveat here is that the longer you wait to weigh in on the situation, the less control you will have to shape the conversation. That’s why it’s essential to balance a well thought-out response with timeliness before the conversation has a chance to spiral out of hand. By engaging in the conversation, you can clear up any misinformation and bring clarity to the situation from your organization’s point of view.

When deciding where to engage on social media, consider the platforms on which your company already has a presence and where the current conversation about the crisis is taking place. For example, if you don’t already have a Twitter account, the middle of a crisis is not the time to create one. If you do, Twitter can be a great platform to quickly and succinctly share your message. Posting on your established Facebook channel also offers the opportunity to elaborate with more details, video and links, if necessary.

A classic example of the importance of staying mindful of your social platform was Domino’s YouTube response to an upsetting viral employee video in 2009, when most social channels were still in their infancy. The video that generated the crisis first appeared on YouTube, so the company decided to address the public and respond on the very same platform where the incident occurred.

Because no crisis situation is created equal, your social media response will vary according to different factors. In some cases, you might respond to inquiries through one-on-one replies and messages. In other cases, you need to alert your entire follower base. Asking yourself questions—such as “who is this crisis impacting?” or “how long until a solution is in place?”—can help you determine what your response strategy should include.

REPEAT: Evolve Your Approach as Necessary

Your communications should evolve as the situation does, so plan to revisit these steps throughout the duration of the crisis. In the midst of an event, your message may need to change as new facts come to light, so update posts accordingly. The continuity of your response is just as critical as the tone and timeliness of your initial reaction on social media. As more information becomes available and facts are clarified, communicate those changes.

No matter how a crisis begins, organizations are at risk for corporate cyber shaming online. That's why the key to every crisis situation is to stay ahead of incidents through proper crisis planning. Reacting to a crisis after it happens can be especially challenging, if you don’t already have a response plan. But by putting a social media strategy in place now as part of your overall crisis communications plan, you can ensure that your team and company can activate quickly when a crisis does strike.


Amy Lach is an Account Executive who specializes in social media, digital marketing and media relations, supporting clients across diverse industries.